Days like today might come along once in a lifetime.
I met Larbi Assaoui in Nashville over four years ago. I was in my front yard watering my roses as he was walking his bike down the street. Being a passionate gardener, Larbi was quick to let me know I was doing a terrible job at watering and that I would kill my roses if I kept it up.
We struck up a conversation and he asked me if I liked vegetables. I said I did, so he told me to wait there for a few minutes while he ran home. A short time later Larbi returned with a bag full of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I tried to give him $20 and he told me I was crazy.
The next day there were more vegetables on my doorstep. This continued until Larbi decided I needed my own garden. He asked me where I wanted it to go and then he got to work tilling the soil.
After that it was official. We were friends.
Little did I know I’d be sitting here in Rabat, Morocco, four years later writing this.
Like many people in the neighborhood it was very clear Larbi had had a tough life. He couldn’t find work, he lived off of food stamps which the government eventually took away, and he had no friends or family other than me and a little black chihuahua named Bobo that followed him everywhere.
Over the weeks and through his thick accent, I began to piece together Larbi’s story.
The full version would take too long to tell, but it goes something like this:
Larbi was born in Taza, Morocco, one of eight children. He married and had a son, but shortly after, his wife took their two year old son and disappeared. He never spoke to her again and for twenty five years and never knew his son’s whereabouts.
Shortly after his wife ran away, his father died of stomach cancer. Heartbroken by both of these tragedies, Larbi decided to visit his sister who was spending a year in the states studying at the University of Oakland in Michigan.
He showed up at her dorm with a six month visa and no plans. After being invited by a friend of a friend, the two of them travelled to Kentucky to celebrate Thanksgiving.
In Kentucky Larbi met a man who promised him work at his restaurant in Nashville. Though Larbi didn’t speak a word of English, the opportunity sounded good and he got on a bus bound for Tennessee.
Unfortunately, the man who gave Larbi the job was a very bad person. He wanted to ensure that he could keep Larbi working without having to pay him, so Larbi lived at the restaurant while the man prevented him from getting his papers. He feared that if Larbi got his papers he could demand fair pay or go work somewhere else.
This continued for years. Larbi eventually married again and afraid that she was his path to a legitimate work visa, the same man convinced Larbi’s wife to leave him. On top of that, he stole Larbi’s identity and committed crimes, which sent Larbi to prison.
Larbi spent nine months locked up in Louisiana waiting to be appointed an attorney before he was eventually set free.
In the meantime, Larbi had lost touch with his family. They hadn’t seen so much as a picture of him in 25 years.
By the time I met him he suffered from terrible depression. He ate very little and managed to make just enough money doing odd jobs to buy enough alcohol to get him to the next day. The passing years seemed to have taken everything from Larbi except his kindness and generosity.
After finding out Larbi had a large and successful family back in Morocco, I began trying to track them down. Thanks to Google, I was able to find an old email address of his sister’s and we eventually made contact. We were then able to set up a Skype chat which allowed his family to see him for the first time in many many years.
Like everything else in Larbi’s life, returning to Morocco was not simple. His ID and passport were destroyed in a house fire, meaning that he was unable to return home.
I began doing research and calling the Moroccan consulate to try and get his papers.
After two years, immigration attorneys, a trip to New York, and bribing Moroccan officials, Larbi’s passport finally arrived.
On Sunday afternoon, after over 26 years in the US, Larbi got on a plane to Morocco.
Today I watched him walk out of the doors of the airport and into the arms of his sister who hadn’t hugged him since that Thanksgiving in 1989.
I watched him cry in his mothers arms who for years said her only wish was to see him again before she died.
I watched him meet nephews and nieces who are studying to be doctors, economists, and engineers who weren’t even born the last time he was in Morocco.
It was overwhelming…to say the least.
Life has not been kind to Larbi. It shows on his face. His mother said he looks nothing like the son she knew. All of his brothers and sisters were taken aback when they saw what those 26 brutal years did to his body.
But in spite of it all, Larbi has another shot at life and he’s surrounded by people who’ve missed him dearly and who love him and will help him heal.
I’ve still got a lot of processing to do, but right now I’m going to bed thanking God that I was such a terrible rose gardener.
This wouldn’t have happened without Betsy Boyer Jones, Stephen Lynch, Cassidy Carson Lynch, and Andy Merrick.